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Interview With Room to Read CEO Erin Ganju

Room to Read CEO Shares Her Love of Books

If you haven't caught up to what I've been up to this month, read about how to start your own volunteering initiative at work, and ideas you can implement at the office. This week, I'll be featuring two of my favorite charities to celebrate the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday, I talked about Kiva, and today Room to Read CEO and co-founder, Erin Ganju, will share her story on how her nonprofit is making a difference, one book at a time. The organization sees the education of children as a key factor to escaping poverty, and their team works towards that vision by setting up libraries, schools, and more in countries all over the world.

SavvySugar: What was your favorite book when you were a kid?

Erin Ganju: I had a ton of favorite books that were my favorite.  But one of them is certainly Dr. Seuss, who I think is really attractive to young children with all of the great rhymes and fun characters. Green Eggs and Ham in particular was one of my favorites, which is representative of the kind of an icon of an amazing children’s book that everyone refers to. In many ways, Room to Read sees itself as being able to create similar stories. We often say we want to be the Dr. Seuss of the developing world. Because it’s just that idea of making reading fun, exciting, to draw a child in, and make it about reading for enjoyment. That’s what I think is the classic Dr. Seuss experience kids should have.


SS: Who is your female role model?

EG: I always say that my best role model has been my mom. She definitely was a trailblazer in her own time. She was one of the first thousand members of the Peace Corp volunteers in the early sixties under Kennedy, and prior to that in the late fifties, she taught English in Japan, so she really was very internationally minded at a young age and in a time when it was very unusual in the US. So I kind of gained a lot of my love for the world around me and being a global trail blazer from my mom. I also look up to strong women like Madeline Albright who broke through many glass ceilings in her own time as the first Secretary of State. She really set a different tone for the fact that women can be a part of the conversation at the leadership level in the world. When you look at the 190 countries in the world, only 15 of them have heads of states that are women, the last time I checked. Eleven of them are in the developing world. So in many ways, I always tell Room to Read investors that it’s probably more likely that some of the girls in our girls education program in developing countries may grow up to be presidents of their own countries than it probably is for our own daughters.

To hear more about her vision for Room to Read's future, read on!

SS: What is your vision going forward?

EG: Our core focus is on ensuring that more children graduate from primary school with the ability to be independent readers, which is to have the skills of reading and a regular habit of reading. Our second core focus is gender equality in education, so to ensure more girls graduate from secondary school and have the ability to make key life decisions. Our girls education program not only ensures girls stay in school longer and have the formal education, but we also do a lot of life skills workshops with the girls after school . . . the exciting part about Room to Read is that every year you keep a girl in secondary school, her earning potential goes up by 15 percent. So if you’re able to get her to the end of twelfth grade or secondary school, her life opportunities are entirely different. One of the best investments you can make in the development world is educating girls. And once you do, you lower infant mortality, you increase family health and nutrition, you ensure that the next generation will be educated, obviously as I said there are much more economic opportunities for girls. It’s one of the key ways to really breaking the cycle of poverty in developing countries is to ensure that more and more girls get educated.

SS: What inspires you?

EG: What definitely inspires me is when you can see the impact on the communities that we’re in. When you visit a community before a Room to Read project and then you're able to go back a year later and see a vibrant library in a school where there is a trained teacher who knows how to engage children in reading and you see the recess bell ringing and dozens of children and pouring into the library and grabbing books. One of the teachers was telling me on my last trip [to Vietnam] that the library is now the place where he hears laughter the most, and it’s just like that concept of being able to make education not only relevant, not only important, but also really fun for children is so important. And we’re working with primary schools so at that age you really want kids to be drawn to education and see going to school as something that they want to do not something they’re forced to do.

SS: What's your Thanksgiving message?

EG: We have a tradition in my family and probably many people do, where you go around the table and you talk about what you’re thankful for. And in my life, I’m always thankful for the opportunity to have made a difference in someone’s life. And oftentimes when you come to the holiday season, it’s about giving just as much as it is receiving, and there is nothing better than knowing that you changed the life of a child by giving them the gift of education and being able to support the dreams and realities of all children, no matter what circumstances they’re born into. So I really ask people to think about in terms of all the gifts they have in their life. To whom much is given, much is expected. [Thanksgiving] is really an opportunity to think about how you can give back and really invest in someone else’s dreams and help them come true.


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